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Thai Spice lights the way

 

★★★

Thai Spice isn't much from the outside. The main parking lot is cramped. The plaza could use some freshening. Even the sign in the parking lot needs updating.

It all belies what happens when you get beyond the front door.

The entire restaurant kind of glimmers. It's not too dim and not too bright, with LED torches changing from purple to blue to yellow to white. Each dining room — Amber, Blue, Emerald — is named after the color of lighting pendant used to illuminate each space. Huge aquariums provide even more glowing light. Every room seems more comfortable than the last, with huge upholstered booths, plush chairs and a sound system that will have you tapping your toe.

It's obvious now why so many people have told me that the 27-year-old Thai Spice is like no other Thai restaurant in South Florida. Thankfully, there's no sushi on the menu. Chef and owner Michael Tatton learned how to cook Thai at the hands of a woman who had cheffed at Bangkok's Mandarin Oriental hotel. She was working at the Mai-Kai, where Tatton's father worked as maitre d' for 37 years.

Tatton has an elegant hand with bright curries that pop with freshness, from panang to red curry. Whether you order panang beef ($16.95) or red-curry chicken ($15.95), you'll find a respect for ingredients that leave a bit of a crunch in both green peppers and green beans. Every dish is decorated with a fresh orchid.

Tatton describes his himself using words similar to those he uses to describe his menu. "I'm half Asian and half American," he says, of his Filipino/Thai father and American mother.

In the kitchen, he combines his solid Thai credentials with a modern American sensibility that demands the best ingredients he can find. The beef is prime Angus. Tatton uses a seafood purveyor that also supplies some of the best seafood restaurants in town.

That's why, pricewise, Thai Spice is more expensive than other Thai restaurants. But after one meal here, you won't be comparing it to Thai restaurants, but to elegant steak and seafood spots. Trust me, you'll see. Service is good, but sometimes less sophisticated than the food and atmosphere.

A 10-ounce serving of skirt steak ($21.95) comes with addicting garlic-scented bok choy. A 22-ounce porterhouse ($39.95) gets the same delicious side. I'd never thought about ordering steak in a Thai restaurant, but Tatton rubs his beef with ginger, garlic and Thai soy before it hits the grill. Alongside each steak is a bowl of tiger-tear dipping sauce, a combination of Thai chili, fish sauce, lime juice and cilantro, among other things. Steaks are very nicely charred.

The freshness of Thai Spice's fish is best seen when you order a whole fish, which can be oven-roasted or crispy-fried. The other night, yellowtail cost $29.95, red snapper cost $39.95 and the incredible hog snapper, which I ordered, cost $36.95. Fish can be had with a choice of sauce: chili garlic, ginger, red curry, Thai basil, sweet and sour, or Thai garlic lemon butter. I had the wonderful chili garlic, which I wish I'd ordered on the side. It covered the fish, and made eating around the bones quite difficult. Not one single bite, however, was overcooked.

Pad thai ($15.95) is here, of course, but Tatton does his American treatment by offering lobster pad thai ($27.95) with the addition of Maine lobster chunks.

From the huge appetizer menu, we had crispy sesame chicken wings ($10.95) with chili dipping sauce, and vegetable spring rolls ($5.50, two per order) that were so fresh you just knew they'd been rolled minutes before hitting the fryer and arriving at our table. They were served with two dipping sauces, plus a tray of even more chili options.

Tatton, now 47, started Thai Spice as an Asian grocery store. It expanded from 1,000 square feet to its current 4,250 square feet. Four years ago, his restaurant received a 5-Star Diamond Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, the first Thai restaurant to be honored since its 1949 inception. It joined five other South Florida restaurants that had been similarly honored: Café L 'Europe in Palm Beach, the Forge and Quattro Gastronomia Italiana in Miami Beach, and Ortanique on the Mile and La Dorada in Coral Gables.

That's quite an accomplishment.

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.

Thai Spice

1514 E. Commercial Blvd., Oakland Park

954-771-4535, ThaiSpiceFL.com

Cuisine: Thai and American

Cost: Expensive-very expensive

Hours: Dinner daily, lunch weekdays

Reservations: Strongly suggested

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Pleasantly conversational

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Highchairs, boosters

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Free lot, complimentary valet at dinner

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